Canada’s free healthcare system isn’t without a cost

The government must take responsibility for the shortage of doctors in Canada immediately

Image by: Herbert Wang
Maya believes residency program revisions could solve barriers to accessing family doctors.

The Ontario Government must invest more money, time, and effort into improving the healthcare system and access to family doctors.

The Canadian healthcare system is extremely underfunded and has been for several years.  This has resulted in lack of accessible and affordable healthcare for all Canadians.

Across the country, new citizens and young people are finding it impossible to obtain a family doctor. With an existing shortage of family doctors that has no end in sight, new patients are at the end of a very long waitlist. Immigrants especially struggle to find a proper physician amidst the process of obtaining citizenship and navigating a foreign country. Despite being publicly funded, the distribution of those who can access healthcare is inequitable.

One in five Canadians can’t access a family doctor. Not only are family doctors dwindling, but the number of patients in need is on the rise. Wait times in hospitals are also increasing. Without a family doctor, individuals resort to hospitals or walk-in clinics for minor ailments, sometimes waiting several hours to be seen, preventing those with more serious medical concerns from getting the care they need.

In June 2021, my grandmother was assessed by a small-town hospital and misdiagnosed with the wrong type of cancer. She was told she had low risk abdominal cancer and was sent home. She continued to suffer and had to wait weeks to be seen by medical staff to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.

With the right medical support, she could have been appropriately diagnosed with ovarian cancer from the beginning, and her treatment could have started months before. Unfortunately, she passed away later that fall.

My grandmother was a bright light that shone through everyone who knew her. Sadly, her story is identical to many others. An estimated 11,000 Ontarians have died while waiting for surgeries, MRIs, and CT scans in the past year. Based on wait times alone, more and more Canadians are dying due to shortcomings in the healthcare system.

It shouldn’t be that Canadians are denied access to healthcare when their lives are at stake. It’s a right to receive care when sick or injured, not a privilege. In a country that’s so clearly proud of free access to healthcare, it’s ironic that one of the biggest issues Canada faces right now is a broken healthcare system.

The growing healthcare crisis can be attributed to several causes.

Doctors are paid by billing the provincial government for their work. The provincial government receives money through taxpayer dollars, distributed both provincially and by the federal government. When there’s insufficient money to pay the necessary doctors, staff numbers decrease, and so does availability and quality of patient care.

Additionally, provincial governments are responsible for the number of residency spots open to newly graduated medical school students. To become a doctor in Canada requires a medical degree and a minimum of two years in residency.

Already, Canadian medical schools offer seats to an extremely small percentage of students. So, despite a clear shortage and projected shortage of physicians, Canada isn’t allowing enough doctors to be trained.

This problem is even more local than one may think, with Queen’s being the most selective medical school in Canada, with a 1.8 per cent acceptance rate and approximately 145 students accepted each year. After acceptance, only about 80 per cent of med school graduates match into their top three residency placement choices. Every year, many med school graduates must wait another year before reapplying to the specialty of their choice in the hopes they match the second time around.

This all boils down to the same issue, provincial governments have the authority to decide the number of spots available in medical schools based on how many residency spots it can afford to fund.

Not only is there insufficient funding, but the College of Family Physicians of Canada is attempting to implement a third year of residency in the family physician licensing process. They claim that mandating a third year starting in 2027 would prepare physicians to deal with more complex issues, including elder care, mental health and addictions, and Indigenous health.

However, with a major shortage of family doctors, and where it is increasingly difficult for individuals—especially immigrants—to receive basic healthcare, it seems counterintuitive to add this requirement now. The government must reduce barriers to students becoming doctors, not increase them.

There are three key calls to action to be made to improve the quality of Canadian healthcare.

First and foremost, provincial governments must increase residency spots—particularly in family medicine—for newly graduated medical school students. More residencies allow more students to be trained to become fully licensed doctors.

Secondly, provincial governments must advise against the push for a third year of residency in family medicine. Although there are credible arguments supporting this suggestion, it’s not the right time to be imposing additional hurdles for future doctors to leap through.

Finally, citizens must make the case to provincial governments that healthcare is a number one priority through their votes. Governments listen when citizens demand change.

If it’s at all important to the government to retain Canada’s reputation for providing accessible healthcare to all, it must live up to that reputation. Right now, our leaders seem to consistently disappoint their people, so it’s time for real change to begin. Premier Doug Ford’s vision of “a bigger and brighter future” starts with him resuscitating Ontario healthcare.

Maya is a first-year biology student.


family doctor, Government, Healthcare, Ontario

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